Erland Cooper – Hether Blether

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At some point in May, a letter dropped through my letterbox with a handwritten envelope that stood apart from the endless clusters of bills that seem to be our only engagement with the UK postal service these days. Inside was a signed map of Orkney created by musician Erland Cooper containing walking routes and birdspotting locations. That delivery accompanied the imminent release of Hether Blether, the concluding instalment of Cooper’s trilogy of releases that celebrate the collection of islands where he grew up.

Where 2018’s Solan Goose eulogised the islands’ birdlife and 2019’s Sule Skerry the sea, Hether Blether turns its attention on the land. Sort of. The land in question is the mythological island of the album’s title, a folkloric, missing location that naturally does not appear on the map that Cooper sent me. What does appear on that map, however, are the likes of ‘Noup Head’, ‘Longhope’ and ‘Rousay’, all tracks on the new album, continuing the theme of the previous two albums wherein Cooper named pieces of music after specific locations.

Resplendent in lush, yet fragile string arrangements and choral texture, the tracks on Hether Blether are joyous, celebratory even, albeit in a self-reflective, muted fashion. The synth passages and field recordings that ran through Skule Skerry here take a backseat, emerging briefly on pieces like the stirring, slowly evolving ‘Skreevar’, one of the most beatific moments here. We once again eavesdrop on the local, distinctive Scottish / not Scottish accents on ‘Longhope’ and explore Orkney’s mythology through the strangely affecting poetry of John Burnside on ‘Noup Head’, each word in Kathryn Joseph’s narration containing a sort of gravity and poise that makes you yearn for the islandscape of Cooper’s youth.

Appropriately enough, it is Cooper’s own voice that we hear more prominently throughout Hether Blether, most notably on the album’s centrepiece, ‘Peedie Breeks’, where he is accompanied by poignantly seesawing strings, bells, and operatic vocals that drift in like an icy breeze. His is a lilting, tender voice, effortlessly tugging at your heartstrings as he delivers this song of innocence, playfulness and the unbridled, unshakeable optimism of youth.

Hether Blether by Erland Cooper is released May 29 2020 by Phases.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Various Artists – Latibula

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Latibula is Marionette’s first label compilation, offering a window into the eclectic artists who call the label home as well as providing a sneak preview of where the Toronto-based imprint might go next. All proceeds from the digital compilation will go to Médicins Sans Frontières.

Sans frontières is also an apt way of describing Marionette’s approach. The label was founded in 2013 and swiftly made a mark through releasing complex electronic music that was unafraid of borders, genre limitations or jaded notions of purism, with most releases given their own visual identity by label stalwart Benjamin Kilchhofer. The Basel-based electronic adventurer has released four distinctive solo and duo releases for the label over the past few years, each one characterised by his approach to fusing modular sound design with acoustic instruments. Kilchhofer’s ‘Kloen’ is one of the natural highlights of this collection, led by a synth sequence that feels more like a soprano saxophone line than something that might have emerged from a nest of writhing patch cables.

Elsewhere, musician and instrument builder Pierre Bastien follows up last year’s playful Tinkle, Twang ‘n Tootle with ‘4hands 1breath’. A collaboration with jazz drummer Steve Argüelles and pianist Benoît Delbecq, the piece includes Bastien’s pocket trumpet played through running water against a backdrop of abstract percussion and wandering piano. Another brilliant Marionette release from last year was Giraffe’s Desert Haze, which found the Hamburg trio tapping into German rock reference points from Can to Manuel Göttsching; the trio follow that up with the brilliant ‘Lines Across The Still’, a mellow exploration of wavering melodies, stuttering guitar and polyrhythmic percussion.

One of the most interesting pieces here is ‘Serpentina’ by another Basel-based musician, Marco Papiro. Papiro is a fan of vintage kit, as evidenced across the many albums he’s released to date, but he’s also a DJ, and that tends to mean his tracks are infused with a sense of motion and finely-controlled tension. The brief ‘Serpentina’ is perhaps the most outwardly electronic track here, rolling forth on springy sounds and simple chiming, expressive melodies that feel like they belong in a pivotal scene in an 80s teen movie.

Papiro’s piece slots in alongside other hidden gems from Twinkle3 (Richard Scott, David Ross and Clive Bell), MinaeMinae, Julian Sartorius, Soundwalk Collective and others, pointing to a vibrant future release schedule for Marionette.

Latibula is released by Marionette on May 1 2020 through Bandcamp. Find Marionette at Bandcamp here.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Audio Obscura – Self Isolation Tapes

Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, Etsy took down a t-shirt design emblazoned with the words ‘I Survived Coronavirus’ on the grounds that it was poor taste amid the progress of the disease. We are only four months into this – whatever this will eventually become – and despite government plans to try and progress toward a return to normality, when I think of that t-shirt I’m reminded chiefly of Captain Darling’s line at the end of Blackadder Goes Forth: ‘We lived through it! The Great War, 1914 – 1917!’

So it may also be that releasing music made at this point in isolation, when we could well just be at the start of something that, unlike Blackadder, runs and runs and runs (I’m thinking The Archers, perhaps), may also prove to be similarly premature. Fortunately, amid the slew of self-indulgent self-isolation releases are some genuine gems, and of these is Norfolk-based Neil Stringfellow’s Audio Obscura release, Self Isolation Tapes.

Electronic musicians, as a rule, have never had a problem with self-isolation of course. Theirs is a life of relative solitude, and so it is often hard to see what’s different between music made before isolation, during, and how it might sound when things return to whatever normal we’ll face after this. In Stringfellow’s case, a precedent for the sounds here could be found on his June 2019 Bibliotapes-released imaginary score for George Orwell’s 1984. I’m not prone to self-quoting, but this is how I concluded that piece: ‘Something about the way that Stringfellow has crafted these pieces seems to simultaneously remind us of the unflinching horror of daily life … while also presenting a sense of resignation and dismay that this is the world we currently occupy.’ I’m not saying that this is prescience on my part; more that Stringfellow’s music already seemed to be perfectly suited to dystopia, and so it goes that these seventeen pieces (plus three remixes) are perfectly suited to the current bleak outlook.

Talking of bleakness, not for nothing does Stringfellow include a track nodding in the direction of another savage work of fiction (or is it, now, biographical?) – Albert Camus’s The Plague, a depiction of a highly infectious disease wreaking devastation on an Algerian port. ‘Life In Oran’ is an unsettling listen amid unsettling pieces, beginning with the sounds of Stringfellow’s children playing innocently, which he then frames with murky pulses, dread-ridden haunted tones and a general sense of urgency and insistence. Stringfellow’s children appear again on ‘Each Day The Radio…’, calling for his attention against a backdrop of the daily news stories charting the progress of COVID-19 on the radio. (As an aside, I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like the daily governmental proclamations feel a bit like something from 1984.)

Fortunately, Self Isolation Tapes isn’t a wholly bleak listen – it just mostly is. For example, buried deep in the track ‘Ghosts, Dusk, Decay’ is a solitary, tentative, almost hopeful synth note which appears fleetingly, only for the track to return to more discordant territory by the end; elsewhere, ‘Quiet World’, one of the shorter tracks here, is a piece floating forth on a delicate, soothing ambience. The pair of tracks ‘The 33rd Of April’ and ‘The 44th Of May’ may be titled with sardonic humour, but are presented with brooding textures and muted beats that become sonic approximations of industrial, noxious soundscapes or the fading broadcasts of horror soundtracks heard across post-apocalyptic wastelands.

‘One Day I’ll Grow Nostalgic For These Days’ is one of the most memorable pieces here, containing wistful piano and scratchy little sounds, a little like static coming from an old radio transmission. Here you find little melodic lines that seem to belong elsewhere, stuttering vocal segments and pretty bird song, a sparse rhythm outlining the weird sense of nostalgia embedded in the piece’s title.

It is a collection that is necessarily dark, even in the context of Stringfellow’s work. But perhaps it’s worth returning to ‘Life In Oran’ to put this all in context. Alongside the more negative moments are the interjections of real life – washing up, maybe, along with other quotidian tasks. Initially these throw you off and confuse you, but between those sounds and Stringfellow’s kids playing, they serve to remind you that life does indeed go on, even in the strangest of circumstances. Long after this is over, these sounds will be our reminder of how we felt while COVID-19 took its toll on us, with Self Isolation Tapes a diaristic time capsule into collective self-isolation.

Self Isolation Tapes by Audio Obscura was released Friday April 24 2020.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Listening Center – Diaphanous Structures

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Listening Center is the project of Beacon, NY electronic musician David Mason, and Diaphanous Structures is the follow-up to last year’s Retrieving.

Where Retrieving was an album that managed to straddle the elastic explorations of 1970s Moog excursions and the fragile architecture of 1981-vintage synthpop, Diaphanous Structures is a much more meditative exercise. Built, for the most part, on delicate, almost wistful layers of gentle, swaying electronics, these eleven pieces nevertheless proceed with a sense of purpose, sidestepping any notion of directionless musing on the part of Mason.

Devoid of beats and obvious rhythms, pieces like ‘Sapling Three’ rely on a languid form of forward motion, buzzing with latent energy and overlapping, effervescent arpeggios. With the addition of soft reverb and subtle modulations and a coda filled with urgent bass sequences, these pieces take on a melodic intricacy without ever sounding anything other than minimalistic.

Elsewhere, ‘Concentric Circles’ carries a gauzy, melancholic edge, the sparsest of patterns creating a stirring, heart-wrenching micro-masterpiece, while ‘A Torn Hedge’ ripples with a brooding mystique and sense of compelling danger; what can Mason see through that hedge? What lies just behind its frontier? Was that tear placed there precisely to permit a voyeuristic glimpse of something elusive?

The album is punctured by three short, sub-one minute vignettes, wrapping complete and intense emotion in the briefest of statements. While ‘Sad Center’ has a profoundly moving quality, the wonderful ‘Interior Hue’ is a classically-leaning piece nodding contentedly in the direction of early electronic albums and the long shadow cast by their innovative sound palettes.

Diaphanous Structures by Listening Center was released April 9 2020 by Temporary Tapes.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Johannes Burström – Dyad

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In sociological terms, a dyad is the smallest possible social group, consisting of just two counter-parties. In the case of Stockholm-based Johannes Burström’s latest project, those two elements are his double bass and electronics, the result being a thirty-seven minute exploration of the sonic potential of an instrument, well beyond its normal, familiar setting.

The approach Bürstrom took reminds me chiefly of Toshimaru Nakamura’s work for no-input mixing boards, here using a microphone to record the sounds of the bass as it was subjected to a loop played through a device placed above it. As far as one can tell from the notes on Burström’s Bandcamp page, the similarity with Nakamura’s work is that the process seemed to involve no actual playing of the bass in the traditional sense, only that the bass responded using tension, resonance and vibrations to the pre-programmed loop from a computer.

In spite of that, it remains possible to discern that the instrument being ‘played’ is a bass. There is an earthy, elastic quality to the resultant sounds that are immediately recognisable, whether in the context of expressive jazz motifs or in the whole-instrument manipulations used by improvising players like Tom Wheatley.

For the most part, however, the chance-filled sound world that emerges here is a dirty, slowly-evolving, almost industrial bed of beautiful noise somewhere between a rapidly-spinning washing machine and quietly humming air-conditioning unit. To do that with an instrument like a bass, with all its distinctive, springy tonalities is a testament to Burström’s interventions and sense of sonic adventure.

Dyad by Johannes Burström was released March 27 2020 by BoogiePost Recordings.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Sad Man – Indigenous Mix 3

Indigenous Mix 3 is the counterpart to The King Of Beasts, the latest album from Andrew Spackman’s Sad Man alias. The King Of Beasts offered all the expected characteristics of a Sad Man album in the form of jerky, vibrant electronic music that draws heavily on the legacy of jazz music, giving his pieces a natural freedom and looseness that is rare to find in music made on a grid.

Here, each of the album’s twelve pieces are given a substantial makeover, the approach varying between incorporating tribal percussion and throwing out some of the jazzier reference points in favour of a skewed, wonky electronica, and most points in between. That approach gives the mixes of ‘Carbonated’ and ‘Kalifornia’ an awkward, clipped, chunky quality offering a firmness in place of the original’s lightness of touch.

Elsewhere, ‘After After’ is re-rendered as a longform electro workout full of ringing motifs and buzzing melodies, while a standout new version of ‘Door’ becomes a metallic hip-hop groove knocked off course by springing, unpredictable electronic percussion and nauseatingly spiked vocal samples.

Indigenous Mix by Sad Man is released April 1 2020.

Read Further.’s interview with Andrew Spackman about ten of his musical influences here.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Snakestyle & Tove Aradala – Nordic Patterns

Somewhere along the lines, Nordic culture got a major overhaul, becoming shorthand for sleek minimalism and clinical modernism. Nordic Patterns, a collaboration between electronic musician Matthew Leigh Embleton’s Snakestyle alias and Tove Aradala seeks to redress that, delving deep into the essential fabric of Norse tradition with all its attendant mystique and rich, unique mythology.

Tove Aradala, or Tove Aradala Barbrosdotter Buhe-Stam to give her full name, is well-placed to comment on this. A High Priestess of the Temple Of The Eternal Goddess, a reconstituted religion which taps into the essential polytheism of Norse culture, a belief system which celebrated multiple spirits, gods and creatures. Using sections of Eddas (holy texts), songs and pieces written in the spirit of the region’s folkloric essence, Nordic Patterns affixes Aradala’s gentle singing and resonant chanting to an intricate, entrancing electronic backdrop crafted by Embleton. The album began with a series of field recordings on the Swedish island of Gotland in August 2019 before Embleton returned to London to complete the tracks.

Pieces like ‘Gnisvärd’ exemplify the approach. Here Aradala took traditional folk song rewrote it as the coda to a sparse backdrop of ebbing and flowing electronic sequences wrapped in hazy, frosty textures. Echoing sampled vocals wend their way through the piece, like voices lifted from an old Edison Cylinder, creating a subtle tension between the present and the past. Embleton reveals himself as a sensitive collaborator to Aradala, bathing her ethereal, yet commanding, voice in shimmering reverb and framing her vocal with structures built with a naturalistic fragility. On ‘Klangstenen’, that backdrop is fashioned from liquified, jazzy tones and beats reduced to a primal essence of clicks and pulses; on ‘Trullhalsar’ it is a landscape of dubby bass and wavering, tentative melodies.

The key piece here is ‘Hoburgsgubben’, a nine minute unlikely ambient pop song that flows with meditative purpose. Deeply poignant synth melodies, a shrouded, unobtrusive beat and a general air of serenity envelop joyous lyrics written by Aradala that beautifully celebrate midwinter, and all its frosty promise.

Nordic Patterns by Snakestyle & Tove Aradala was released March 27 2020 by Alex Tronic Records

Words: Mat Smith

Wonderful Beasts – The Art Of Whisper

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More than ever before, ambient music feels somehow necessary right now. It represents a vehicle through which to still one’s restless mind amid a tickertape feed of dystopian signals, harrowing statistics and only the briefest flourishes of hope. Whether as a tool for absorption or distraction, ambient music can centre you elsewhere, allowing you to regain focus and perspective.

Unfortunately, a lot of ambient music is also terminally boring, the equivalent of sonic wallpaper or a naff pastiche of inconsequential New Age reference points. That accusation thankfully cannot be levied at Wonderful Beasts, a pairing of electronic artists boycalledcrow and Xqui, whose first collaboration together is anything but music to drift off to sleep to.

For the most part, The Art Of Whisper is built from blocks of gauzy texture, etiolated clouds of sound that float past you and hover, mirage-like and just out to reach, before vanishing into nothingness. Sprinkles of delicate synth melodies are cast over pieces like ‘I Fell Into A Dream’, a languid pace and frosty atmosphere evoking crystalline structures and ghostly shimmer. ‘Love Her’ and ‘Quiet’ include what could be the heavily-processed sound of pealing church bells submerged under layers and layers of dense reverb so as to leave the merest trace outline of joyfulness.

Elsewhere, there are pieces that break free of these beatific soundworlds. ‘My Old Guitar’ has a firmness and drama, its delicate melodic gestures nudged forward with a murky bass undertow and a distant beat. The track opens with a distorted, over-amped synth passage, creating the sense of memory and nostalgia enshrined in the title. A similar effect can be found on ‘She Is The Melody Man’, wherein a pounded, tribal rhythm supports a framework of high-velocity sequences and plucked guitar-like sounds, simultaneously carrying a sense of threat but also a youthful vigour, like looking back on the adventure games you played as a child. ‘Into The Emerald Eye’ is perhaps the noisiest piece here, with squalling layers of angry noise that finally ebb away into the same stylistic terrain as the likes of ‘Love Her’.

What boycalledcrow and Xqui offer is a sense of narrative without once revealing the story, offering little more than glimpses of moments freighted with emotional, yet ephemeral significance. To do that within the context of ambient music is nothing short of remarkable.

The Art Of Whisper by Wonderful Beasts was released March 20 2020 by Wormhole World.

(c) 2020 Further.

Christian Wallumrød Ensemble – Many

As innovative as it is, modern classical music has settled into something of a comfortable pattern, with a relatively predictable interplay between acoustic instruments and electronics. What once felt like progressive, modernistic flourishes now feel familiar; there’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but with a few notable exceptions, it’s often easy to form an impression of what a modern classical album will sound like before you’ve even put it on.

One of those exceptions is Norwegian composer and ensemble leader Christian Wallumrød. After a series of celebrated albums for the venerable ECM label, alternative musical paths in his sibling electronic duo Brutter, and parallel time spent in the Dans Le Arbre quartet, Wallumrød released the brilliant Kurzsam And Fulger through Hubro in 2016. His is a modern classical that nudges into jazz territory without ever fully giving in to that movement’s improvisatory pedigree, creating music with an inherent fluidity that nods to traditions in its foundations, but which aggressively looks to more experimental territory for its final appearance.

Wallumrød’s new ensemble recording, Many, finds inspiration in the musique concrète innovations made by Pierre Schaeffer at the Groupe de Recherche Musicales in 1950s Paris or the early deployment of tape technology by John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. What you won’t find here, however, are moments of forcibly-processed sound or intrusive technological gestures. This is an album which – at times – is heavily electronic without using heavy electronics, its reverential concession to musique concrète being some of its confounding, nonconformist rhythmic basis. A piece like ‘Danszaal’ with its chiming trumpet and saxophone passages from Eivind Lønning and Espen Reinertsen respectively progresses with a dizzying, stop-start judderiness that nevertheless carries subtle, microtonally shifting beauty. A similar effect is achieved on ‘Staccotta’, led by Wallumrød’s unswerving piano stabs and plucked cello, blasts of brass and a breakdown into pure electronics giving this a playful, elusive, ever-changing quality.

Elsewhere, that use of electronics is more prominent, and each of Wallumrød’s ensemble – himself, Lønning, Reinertsen, cellist Tove Törngren Brun and drummer / percussionist Per Oddvar Johansen – is credited with the use of electronics alongside their usual instrument. Opening track ‘Oh Gorge’ weaves sprinkles of bleeping, synths around Brun’s mesmeric cello cycles, the whole thing pushed through a heavy echo that gives any of the additional elements – Johansen’s vibraphone, Wallumrød’s upper register piano playing – a sense of spinning out from a turbulent vortex. ‘Abysm’ is perhaps the moment where the electronics take over, the whole piece dominated in the foreground by droning synth textures, effects, loops and a general feeling of wild experimentation, its discordant tendencies operating at odds with a prevailing sense of calm.

The key piece here, perhaps, is the fourteen-minute ‘El Johnton’, a series of three movements that begins with a strident piano, saxophone and brushed snare passage that sounds like the coda to a Billy Joel song, before evolving into something firmer and yet more free. The following section develops as a thrilling minimalist, electroacoustic sound field of electronic pulses, bursts of synthetic tones and arrays of metallic non-rhythms, offset with unpredictable acoustic interventions, almost as the extremest counterpoint to the opening passage; brief passages of that starting point’s piano section drift in and out like melodic memories, suggesting and forcing a connection between the two with the most unlikely sonic construction. By the time the original section is reprised, it feels altered somehow, less straight, its traditional structure sounding suddenly alien after being mauled, manipulated and brutally erased in the ten intervening minutes.

Many by the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble was released February 28 2020 by Hubro.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Erlend Apneseth – Fragmentarium

Fragmentarium follows on from last year’s brilliant Salika, Molika album for the wonderful Hubro imprint. This new collection of seven delicately-assembled pieces finds Hardanger fiddle maestro Erlend Apneseth joined by Stein Urheim (guitar / bouzouki / electronics), Anja Lauvdal (piano / synth / electronics), Hans Hulbækmo (drums / percussion / flute), Fredrik Luhr Dietricshson (double bass) and Ida Løvli Hidle (accordion).

Opening with the mesmeric shapes of ‘Gangar’, Apneseth offers a rich tapestry of sounds straddling traditional Nordic folk forms with more modernistic flourishes – delicate synth sprinkles, arrangements that nod toward jazz and a sense of casual discordance. The album’s title track buzzes with an angry, claustrophobic noisiness punctured with layers of Jew’s harp and Apneseth’s evocative fiddle playing. Throughout that piece, and indeed across the whole album, we hear processed, floating voices drifting in and out, each one borrowed from the Norwegian folk museum in Prestfoss, creating an odd sensation of being adrift from time and place: who do these voices belong to? When were they recorded? What are they saying?

Apneseth’s skill is to ensure that his fiddle playing never stays too long in the mournful, stirring channel that it all-too-readily lends itself too. Here we find him offering playful, unexpected gestures and more aggressively-wrought passages, interspersed with sections that nod firmly in the direction of Nordic folk tradition. As a bandleader, he allows a sense of freedom and experimentation to develop among his accomplished group, resulting in incredibly tight playing but a flexible, evolving approach to composition.

The signature track on the album arrives in ‘Der mørknar’, a densely-packed sequence of heavy drones, fluctuating synths, spacey guitar riffs and expressive fiddle, all glued together with percussive restraint and plaintive piano clusters. The effect is one of constant, unresolved momentum, a feeling of pointing toward something that never quite arrives; in place of the wild pay-off, the track collapses into gentle fiddle shapes, a rare moment of introspection in an album that studiously avoids self-absorption.

Fragmentarium by Erlend Apneseth was released February 28 by Hubro.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.